We tend to think of such modern conveniences such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to be inventions of our generation; but in fact they go back to the 1940s. Bluetooth was itself named after the 10th century Danish king Harald Bluetooth, who united Danish tribes into a single kingdom and introduced Christianity to his people (its name was chosen to imply that it would similarly unite communication protocols into a common standard).
So, what do the following three things have in common: A young Jewish woman by the name of Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, born in 1914 in Vienna, Austria; the spread-spectrum technology that enables Wi-Fi, CDMA & Bluetooth; and a Hollywood starlet discovered in Paris by Louis B. Mayer in 1937? Quite a lot, in fact; because the woman born in Austria was otherwise known as Hedy Lamarr, inducted posthumously into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 for developing technology useful for a radio guidance system for torpedoes, the concept behind Bluetooth, Wi-Fi & CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) and now used for entertainment and communication around the globe.
Lamarr, who became known as “the most beautiful woman in Europe”, was the only child of a prominent upper-class Jewish family. At 18, she married Friedrich Mandl, reputed to be the third wealthiest man in Austria and an arms dealer who made a killing during the wars (in both senses of the word), in the proverbial bed with both Mussolini and the Nazis. Lamarr would attend lavish dinner parties and business meetings with her husband as he networked with scientists and those involved in military technology, and her intelligent mind soaked up the information, nurturing her scientific talents. Lamarr escaped her controlling and jealous husband by disguising herself as a maid and fleeing to Paris, where she obtained a divorce. There she met Louis B. Mayer, who was scouting for European film talent. In 1938 she made her American film debut in “Algiers”, but because of her beauty, she was often typecast as a seductress; to alleviate the boredom, she set up an engineering room in her home and turned to applied sciences and inventing. With the outbreak of World War II, she wanted to help in the war against the Germans, particularly in improving torpedo technology. She met a composer, George Antheil, who had been tinkering with automating musical instruments; together they came upon the concept of “frequency hopping”: Until then, torpedoes guided by radio signals could be jammed and sent off course just by tuning into their broadcasting frequency and causing interference; hopping frequencies would enable torpedoes to reach their target before their signal could be locked down.
In classic Hollywood-portrayal style, the US Navy wasn’t interested in a technology developed by a beautiful actress and a musician in some suburban home. I find the Stars and Stripes article above very telling, as to their views of a pretty face actually being smart too; its tone is quite condescending from beginning to end. The US military didn’t apply the groundbreaking technology for another 20 years, until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. That same technology serves as the basis for our modern communication technology, enabling many people to use broadband simultaneously without interfering with each other; such situations as portrayed between Doris Day and Rock Hudson in “Pillow Talk” are unthinkable today, and all because of Hedy Lamarr.
So the next time you’re sitting in a café using Wi-Fi next to someone else on their own cell phone, give a wink to the memory of Hedy Lamarr.